On June 11th, the Russian Navy and the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) completed several days of reconnaissance in Russia’s Far East as part of planning for a future joint naval exercise. Later this year in August, both navies will meet for the second phase of Joint Sea-2015 in the Sea of Japan for several days of exercises. These joint exercises represent an increase in activities by both navies aimed at improving readiness, training, and interoperability. More importantly, what they indicate is a China with a growing global reach. At the beginning of the century, such large and distant maritime operations by the PLAN were impossible but now that China is transitioning from a green-water to a blue-water navy, they are becoming the norm. This should be cause for concern to certain countries engaged in disputes with China.
Joint Sea-2015 Phase I
In May of this year, China and Russia conducted a ten day exercise in the eastern Mediterranean dubbed Joint Sea-2015. That exercise was a first for China in two ways; it was the first major naval exercise so far from home waters and it was the first time a tactical exercise was conducted with Russia in Europe. The nine warships that took part in that exercise included two Chinese frigates that had been engaged in counterpiracy duty in the Gulf of Aden while the Russian guided missile cruiser, Moskva, commanded the operation. Among the drills conducted were at-sea replenishment and live-fire exercises.
The exercise in the Mediterranean was viewed as provocative by some as the Mediterranean is a confined body of water for the most part with NATO members ringing the north of it. In light of Russia’s continuing actions in Ukraine and provocative actions by its air force, NATO members are rightfully viewing Russia with concern. While the Kremlin would most like to view the exercise in the Mediterranean as a way of showing continued Russian operational presence in that body of water, analysts in the west should not be overly concerned. Russia has embarked on a massive naval modernization program but with the sudden economic downturn and other happenings, the program is off track while currently, the Russian navy is in dire straits. The same cannot be said of the PLAN.
This exercise was not the first foray by the PLAN into the Mediterranean. During the Libyan civil war in 2011, China dispatched ships to evacuate Chinese citizens which was the first time PLAN ships entered the Mediterranean. Later in 2014, a PLAN frigate was assigned to escort the removal of chemical weapons from Syria for destruction.
Joint Sea-2015 Phase II
The exercises in August which will be the second phase of Joint Sea-2015 will involve two dozen ships off the coast of Primorsky Krai in the Sea of Japan according to Pacific Fleet spokesman Roman Martov. The administrative center of Primorsky is Vladivostok which is the home port of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Russia’s second-biggest fleet. Final arrangements for the exercise will be held in July in Vladivostok. China and Russia will practice air, sea, and ground operations during this exercise and amphibious operations are planned at a Pacific Fleet range outside of Cape Klerk.
This future exercise in the Sea of Japan comes as both China and Russia are engaged in territorial disputes with Japan. Russia is currently disputing the Kuril Islands while China is disputing the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in China). The latter dispute is of more immediate concern and has escalated in recent years with Chinese warships locking weapon-targeting radar on Japanese warships and increasing intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus. Holding the naval exercises in the Sea of Japan can be construed as a way of China sending a message to Japan over the dispute.
China and Russia have been taking steps towards closer ties and these exercises are further proof of that. Few would argue that both nations are somewhat lacking in the “friend” department; with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s in the South China Sea, they haven’t rallied many countries to their cause. Since 2012, both countries have established a regular exercise schedule with operations primarily taking place in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea. Conducting naval exercises is one way of deepening the relationship though it is multifaceted and extends far beyond just the apparent training experiences they offer. These exercises provide a country the chance for training against an opponent who doesn’t use the same guidebooks and attend the same military schools. By conducting joint exercises, the potential for Russia to showcase its weapon systems to Chia and perhaps secure new orders is apparent and this can be seen as a way of eventually increasing interoperability. Naval exercises also offer a country the means to showcase its abilities to the world.
Increasing Chinese Naval Operations Worldwide
The PLAN is rapidly improving in its blue-water capabilities. The first week of June saw the launch of a new Chinese ship of a type that is greatly overshadowed by destroyers, frigates, and the like though deserving of attention. The ship launched is a Type 903A Fuchi-class fleet replenishment ship, the third of its class. While not a warship, ships of this type are absolutely necessary in allowing the PLAN to operate at sea far from home or friendly ports. Currently the PLAN only has several replenishment ships in its inventory and is constructing more to cope with increasing activities such as the antipiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. The increasing acquisition of these types of ships point to a China with ambitions that extend far outside of territorial waters.
While China has carried out naval exercises with Russia in the past, such exercises are growing in size and scope. For China, these exercises provide an excellent way of improving readiness and training. What they also show is that the PLAN is growing more capable and that by agreeing to these highly publicized exercises, that the confidence of the PLAN leadership in the navy is high. On the other hand, such exercises are also a way of intimidating countries that China has disputes with. If the PLAN can conduct exercises so far away from home waters, imagine what it can do close to home such as in the South China Sea.